Federal support for refugees 'inadequate' to launch new life, internal review finds
About 65% of government-sponsored newcomers rely on food banks in 1st year
Canada is the third most welcoming country in the world for refugees, yet the government's financial and resettlement supports are "inadequate" to help newcomers rebuild their lives, according to a new report.
Most refugees brought in by the federal government don't have enough money to cover basic needs like housing and food, and aren't able to obtain language and training programs fast enough to help them become more financially self-sufficient, the report says.
While there has been much public criticism about the health-care benefits and other allowances provided to refugees, the report by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada finds about 65 per cent rely on food banks in the first year. After five years in the country, almost half still depend on social assistance.
"It is expected that the level of support provided should allow government-assisted refugees to meet their essential needs and enable them to meet the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees stated goal of allowing refugees to rebuild their lives in dignity," the report reads. "Several lines of evidence showed that the resettlement assistance program income support levels are inadequate to meet these expectations."
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Government-assisted refugees fare far worse — at least initially — than those brought in with private sponsors, who are usually able to settle in and find jobs with greater ease.
Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees, said federal assistance hasn't adapted to a significant shift in the early 2000s to welcome the most vulnerable refugees to the country who may have much greater medical and social needs.
There is a very clear public benefit to investing in the shorter term to ensure people are healthy and reaching their potential.- Janet Dench, Canadian Council for Refugees
Privately sponsored refugees often have links to family members or community support networks that can improve outcomes, though the gap in income and employment tends to close over time, she said.
The level of federal assistance is in line with provincial social assistance levels to ensure there isn't a major financial adjustment when federal funding stops — a year after arriving in Canada. Dench said there's also an element of "public salability" because there could be a backlash if newcomers received more social assistance or health benefits than Canadians get.
But a greater investment up front on everything from income support, language training, trauma counselling and mental health can reduce public costs over time, Dench said. With a better start, refugees are more likely to join the labour market and make greater contributions to their communities.
"There are all kinds of needs that if there were more resources you could make sure people could really use available energies to settling well into Canada than trying to just survive," she said. "There is a very clear public benefit to investing in the shorter term to ensure people are healthy and reaching their potential."
The internal evaluation, which covered a five-year period from 2010 to 2014 and sought input from refugees, stakeholders and officials, found housing costs sucked up most of the income support, leaving little for basic necessities like bus fare to take children to medical appointments.
Between 2010 and 2014, the average cost per year for resettlement assistance was $10,573 per client.
The report notes that an emphasis on refugee resettlement was described as a "top priority" in the mandate letter for Immigration Minister John McCallum, yet evidence suggests the department's prioritization is "debatable." Recommendations have been made numerous times yet "limited action has been taken to date."
The evaluation, completed in July but only recently posted to the department's website, found that access to language training affected employability, education and training, as well as the ability to interact with school teachers, doctors and neighbours.
Most government-sponsored refugees did not find employment before their income support dried up, mainly because they needed language training, they were in school, were unable to work due to illness or they were older than 65 years.
Looking at a 10-year period from 2002-12, the report found that one year after arrival, 93 per cent of refugee families admitted to Canada as government-sponsored refugees still relied on social assistance benefits, compared with 26 per cent of privately sponsored refugees.
The number decreased to 48 per cent after five years and 39 per cent after a decade for government-sponsored refugees, compared with 27 per cent and 28 per cent in the private sponsored category.
The review makes a series of recommendations ranging from policy changes to better staff training. Senior departmental officials agreed to develop a plan next year and implement changes by March 2018.
When it comes to the volume of refugees accepted between 2010 and 2014 Canada was in the top three along with the United States and Australia.